If Gary Oldman should carry off an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, it will be well deserved and long overdue. As an ensemble piece, the movie is virtually flawless – a vehicle in which Oldman kills off any lingering doubts that he is Britain’s greatest living thespian with zeal, all the more so for being almost completely obscured by jowly prosthetics. Meanwhile, Kristin Scott-Thomas does a fine job of sparring with him in the role of Churchill’s rock, anchor and keeper, Clemmie.
For most of the film, the enemy that Churchill must confront is arguably the most watchable actor in Britain, Stephen Dillane, as the somewhat reedy, appeasing voice of the British Establishment in the form of Lord Halifax. The final addition to this leading foursome is the oft-overlooked Ronald Pickup, playing the part of the equally oft-overlooked Neville Chamberlain with both compassion and despair.
It is shot and acted beautifully, scripted reasonably well… indeed, even when watching it, one imagines that it will become a standard text on the period. Generations of children will be sat down to diligently watch this movie in school history lessons – and therein lies the problem. While the acting and the filming are all superb, the history is not.
We can overlook the fact that Churchill is depicted flying out to France in a C-47 (which didn’t exist then), instead of his D.H.95 Flamingo. Given the amount of CGI and special effects already in place, it wouldn’t have been too big an ask… but we can gloss over that. One CGI shot that was rather superfluous, however, was Churchill pontificating on a rooftop at night, watching a flight of four Hurricanes pass low overhead. Wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.
This is but a prelude to the scene in which Churchill, alone and in the dark, begs President Roosevelt for destroyers and P-40 fighters. Yet the Royal Navy had ample resources at the time to see off the threat of the German Kriegsmarine. It is suggested that the Germans will come to Britain in high speed boats carrying 100 troops in each vessel – although these never existed. Churchill’s main concern was trying desperately to convince the French to send their navy across the Channel, lest it fall into German hands. In the end Churchill ordered the sinking of four French battleships, five destroyers and a seaplane tender when at port in Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria – and captured or sank those French vessels lying in British waters.
As for fighters, Churchill was fully focused upon stimulating the output of Britain’s own aircraft factories – starting with the vast white elephant at Castle Bromwich. Despite severe losses, the Hurricanes of the British Expeditionary Force had taken a mighty toll on the Luftwaffe as the Germans devoured Belgium and France, while belatedly the Spitfire was starting to appear in significant numbers. Quality was not in doubt but quantity was and, in Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill had an ardent quartermaster who ensured that the Battle of Britain ended with more fighters in front-line squadrons than it had begun with.
Not until Britain’s fight for immediate survival was long over did America grudgingly enter into the Lend-Lease programme… but try making a film about World War 2 these days that does not rely upon America’s righteous, guiding hand and see how far it gets through pre-production.
But all of these quibbles pale into insignificance next to the greatest red herring in the film: Churchill riding the District Line. This is the moment at which Oldman’s characterisation is powerless to stop Churchill being propelled into a new role: as a prototype for Tony Blair or David Cameron. You half-expect him to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and insist that the everyday Londoners call him Winston as he seeks their counsel.
This segment of the film is an uncomfortable collection of anachronisms – a measure of what a modern British premier looks like to audiences around the world. Presenting this as historical fact – or as director Joe Wright prefers to call it ’emotional truth’ – is potentially disastrous not just for the film but also for its future viewers. In early 1940 more British people had died as a result of travelling in the blackout than from enemy action, and memories of the horrendous casualties of the Great War were still fresh. They supported appeasement. Appeasement at all costs. Appeasement however long and hard the road may be. When, later, Churchill visited the cities stricken by the Blitz he was booed.
Darkest Hour is a phenomenal piece of work by the cast – Oldman chief among them – and by the artists who created and lit every scene. For the most part it is exquisite. But mistaking its ’emotional truth’ for historical fact would be a grievous error. Enjoy it for what it is – a brilliant piece of movie making.